Many people like to keep politics out of the workplace. But to Traci Fenton, what workplaces badly need is the infusion of a political idea: democracy. Fenton is founder and CEO of WorldBlu, a 14-year-old organization devoted to making companies more participatory. Allowing workers a stronger voice on the job is not only a lofty ideal, she argues, but also a recipe for revved-up employees and better business results. The proof, she says, can be found at firms on WorldBlu's annual list of the Most Democratic Workplaces. Fenton spoke recently with Workforce Management senior editor Ed Frauenheim.
Workforce Management: Why did you start WorldBlu?
Traci Fenton: Because of a series of life-changing events. My senior year in college, I was director of a student-run public affairs conference. My peers wanted to do the conference on democracy. I said, 'That's the worst idea I've ever heard. Democracy means government and politics and I'm not interested in either!' But I started to research the concept. I realized democracy creates an environment that unlocks our full potential. ... It really spoke to my heart. Then I spent time in Indonesia, when the dictator Suharto was being overthrown. I saw what it was like to not live in a free and democratic environment. When I returned to the United States, I took a job at a Fortune 500 firm. I came home from my first day of work demoralized. I realized I was not going to have a voice there. So I left. And I started WorldBlu.
WM: Isn't workplace democracy a recipe for sluggish decision-making?
Fenton: Decentralized decision-making can take more time on the front end as you gather more input from employees. But organizational democracy doesn't mean you have to vote on everything. And even if decisions require more time, you make up that time in the execution. People who have had a say in a decision are more willing to follow through on it.
WM: Is organizational democracy good for everyone?
Fenton: It's not right for all employees. Not everyone has a strong sense of their own self-worth. This may sound hippy-dippy, but it's a requirement for effective participation in a democratic organization.
WM: You say organizational democracy is inevitable. Why?
Fenton: We don't live in the Industrial Age anymore; we live in the 'Democratic Age.' And the command and control system that worked before simply doesn't work in this new age.
WM: Is organizational democracy good for all businesses?
Fenton: Yes. Organizational democracy is good for all companies, but what matters is the timing as to when it is introduced. The mindset of the CEO and top leaders must be prepared for it first before a democratic framework and leadership style can be introduced.
Workforce Management, December 2011, p. 13 Subscribe Now!